Myanmar and us
Arrival at Mrauk U
Travelling towards Mrauk U in the three-wheeler, we passed some Muslim villages just off the main road. I asked the government official accompanying us if we could stop briefly so I could talk to any Muslim people who were chatting by the roadside. I explained how I wanted to find out whether I could communicate in Bangla with them. I knew there were similarities between the two languages. He said going into the villages is strictly forbidden, but we could stop along the road.
We stopped by two Rohingya men lounging on the grassy verge. I found it was possible to communicate, though on a basic level. The government official explained that Muslim and Rakhine people have been completely separated since 2012. They could not go to visit each other. He said he had Muslim friends before the fighting in 2012, but now he saw none of his old friends.
I asked about the impact of the curfew on people. He said that in a real emergency, people had to contact a government department to get permission to go to hospital with an official. But they do not allow Muslim villagers to go out at night whatever the problem. They even may not leave their villages during the day. Intrigued, I decided I'd try to get to the villages to find out more.
Mrauk U under the night curfew had a certain quiet ambience like the peaceful haor villages or those in the Chattogram Hill Tracts, which are not yet connected to the grid. The curfew seemed to have silenced the croaking frogs, chirping crickets, intermittent crying of babies and even the coughing induced by cigarette damaged lungs. However, during some nights the distinct boom of the heavy army artillery firing into the hills towards the supposed AA positions rudely disturbed the peace.
The next day, I took a Rakhine guide. We visited a few Rakhine Buddhist houses at the outskirts of Mrauk U. School were closed for the summer holidays. A Grade 4 girl in one family home was labouring intensely, helping her mother make hats out of palm leaves to sell for the family income.
The girl lamented how her friends sometimes came to ask her to play, but she could not go because of her work. She admitted they had hit her several times at school but this hadn't happened for a while because, according to her family, she was clever.
I thought about the insidious roll number system in Bangladesh schools, perversely acceptable to parents and many teachers. This creates shame and suffering for those with a low roll number. In many schools, teachers continually change roll numbers to denote who are the 'good' students who have achieved a high examination/ test result.
A number rather than a name anonymousness and depersonalises a human being. It's a method in totalitarian states to strip a person of individuality (also think of brother number one, two, etc., within the former Khmer Rouge; Orwell 1984; and numbering in concentration camps). All students under this practice know their predetermined status. The lower roll numbers are the 'less able' whilst number one is the 'best'. This is a sure way to publicly humiliate many students daily and to damage student-teacher relationships.
The roll number system nurtures the 'fixed mindset' in students, which can lower their efforts to overcome subject difficulties. Nor is it a way to create perseverance and creativity in students who coast along in the false glow of being clever created by a high roll number. Rather, teachers should focus praise on students' hard work and perseverance as the best way to achieve improved results.
Parents expect and support the roll number system too. This does not measure the child's abilities other than making an arbitrary average of several narrow memory-based examination results. It gives no meaningful information about the strengths and weaknesses of different subjects or a child's intelligence. It relegates anything not in textbooks and examinations as irrelevant. This is not a system that cares and nurtures a wide range of talents a child may have. It does not care for equal opportunities or the moral values of a child.
How humiliating for a student with a low roll number when the local parents and relatives label the student as unintelligent or lazy. The child cannot escape this widely shared label wherever they go in the local area. In an extended family, parents, grandparents, older siblings, and relatives admonish a child with a low roll number. They put special 'pressure' on them to study more.
The continuing use of roll numbers shows how unaware authorities, School Management Committees and head teachers are of this issue, how out of touch they are with the psychological impact on students - or how little they care.
I asked the Rakhine guide's views on corporal punishment. He said it had helped him learn. The guide could not understand my argument: students learn from teachers that violence and power are justified to solve problems. I said, wasn't the army using its power to repress people in the same way, albeit in a much more extreme manner.
The guide emphatically asserted that a teacher knew which students were lazy, which were not paying attention to their studies, and in a big noisy class the teacher should hit them to make sure the students paid attention. He did eventually admit that they may hit those students of low capability for no fault of trying, but just because of their lack of understanding, perplexingly saying other tourists didn't ask these questions.
In one house, the Grade 3 student had to study four textbook subjects: Burmese (the Myanmar language), maths, English and science. The Grade 4 student had just one more textbook subject to study - geography and history.
Noticeably different from Bangladesh, secularism was evident in Myanmar government schools: they confined religion to the monastery. If parents wanted their child to learn religion, it happened out of the school environment. There was no separation into different religious subjects depending on your parent's religion, which occurs in Class 3 in Bangladesh government primary schools.
The adults informed me that in the town the textbooks were free but in the local rural villages the students had to pay for them. School was professedly free (like the slogan in Bangladesh) even when students had to pay for a school uniform, a pen, pencil, rubber, a ruler and a box with various instruments for maths. When officials proclaim an alternative reality enough times - especially with the co-operation of the media - then some people believe it must be true.
Many students went to private coaching lessons, facing the same pressure as in Bangladesh - if you didn't attend the private coaching ran by your teacher, then it was possible your teacher could fail you. The private coaching system was similar as in Bangladesh - and costly too.
To be continued...